I am the traitor, p.10

I Am the Traitor, page 10


I Am the Traitor

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  He pats her on the shoulder as she passes by. It’s patronizing. And it gets us through the checkpoint.

  Tanya was right. It’s easier with her along.

  Howard turns the exit door handle, and it opens. He steps outside.

  A radio crackles behind me. The lead guard slaps the chest of the guard next to him, bringing him to attention. He points at us.

  “Stop!” the guard shouts, and the men rush toward us.

  Tanya shifts into a defensive stance, preparing to take them on with me. But Howard is outside right now, unprotected.

  “Get to the car!” I say, and I push Tanya through the exit door, slamming it tight behind her.

  I turn to face the threat alone.

  The first guard has a stun gun in his hands. When he lunges at me, I sidestep and grab him, using my better position and leverage to swing his body around. I use his arm like it’s my own, delivering a stun charge in the neck of the guard next to him, before spinning and delivering the same charge to his own neck.

  Both men fall to the ground, out cold.

  One guard remains. A young guy.

  He does not go for his stun gun or his radio. He snaps his arm down, and an extendable baton drops out from his wrist. It whips through the air with a whistle. He strikes high, toward my head. I can tell he is nervous and wants this to be over quickly.

  I want the same thing. I suspect we’re both going to get what we want.

  When he comes for my head, I quickly lean backward from the waist. The baton flies past my face, missing my nose by less than half an inch.

  His move has thrown him off balance. He’s put everything he has into knocking me out in a single blow. It’s a rookie move, like a baseball player who tries too hard to hit the first pitch.

  It’s easy enough for me to step in, swing him over my hip, and throw him to the ground.

  “Stop fighting,” I say.

  If he were smart enough to take my advice, this would be over easily. But he’s a fighter, or thinks he is.

  He attempts to swing the baton around and catch me across the back. I stamp down hard on the baton, hear it crash to the ground and roll across the hallway. Then I throw an elbow at his head. The impact is enough to knock him senseless.

  So much for fighting back.

  I hear more guards coming down the hallway.

  It’s time for me to go. I slam open the door and emerge into the bright sunlight of the parking lot.


  She’s in the driver’s seat and Howard is next to her.

  “Get in,” she says, indicating the back.

  “Do you know how to drive?” I say.

  “Did you seriously just ask me that?”

  I climb in.

  Tires squeal as Tanya guns the engine, spinning the Accord in a 180-degree arc in the parking lot, until it’s dead aimed for the front gate.

  She jams the accelerator and makes a run for the exit. Before we can get out, a cloud of dust rises from the road in front of the institute, and a large black Yukon rams the wooden barrier at the front gate as the guards scurry to safety.

  The Yukon stops just inside the facility, blocking the only exit.

  Tanya slams on the brakes, and we skid to a stop a hundred feet away, facing the gate, head-to-head with the Yukon.

  The Yukon’s engine revs hard, a V-8 roar that rumbles across the parking lot.

  “Who the hell is that?” Howard says.

  “Mike,” I say.

  “That son of a bitch,” Tanya says. She says it as if she knows him.

  “What do we do?” Howard says.

  “We take him on,” Tanya says.

  “His vehicle outweighs ours by about a ton,” I say.

  “That just means we’re more agile.”

  She revs the Honda’s engine.

  “You sure you don’t want me to drive?” I say.

  “Not a chance,” she says.

  She pops us into gear, roaring toward the Yukon. Mike does the same, racing forward toward a head-on collision.

  “You can’t knock him out like this,” I say.

  “I know what I can and can’t do,” she says, annoyed with me.

  She doesn’t flinch, heading straight at Mike as he does the same.

  I make sure my seat belt is buckled and I brace for impact. Howard screams—

  Tanya swerves hard at the last second, and the front end of the Yukon misses our rear bumper by inches.

  Mike roars by, smoke pouring from his wheel wells when he realizes he’s missed. He tries to bring the big truck around.

  Tanya has a clear shot to the exit now, but she doesn’t take it. She turns in the opposite direction, back toward the Yukon.

  “What the hell are you doing?” I ask.

  “We have to cripple him.”

  “What if he cripples us?” Howard says.

  “Unlikely,” she says, her voice cool.

  She weaves forward in a tight serpentine pattern. Mike comes at us, trying to match Tanya’s moves, but the physics of his heavy vehicle don’t allow him to drive in the same way. His speed drops as he loses forward momentum. Tanya guns the engine and turns hard at the last moment, and our rear bumper clips the front wheel of the Yukon, shredding it to pieces. Shards of metal and rubber fly into the air, and an enormous hubcap rolls past us across the parking lot.

  “I guess the second time’s the charm,” she says, pleased with herself.

  “I’m guessing you two have history,” I say.

  “Everyone has history with Mike,” she says.

  I want to ask more, but I drop it for the time being.

  With Mike’s Yukon crippled behind us, Tanya drives unhindered through the front gate. She pulls out of the research institute and swerves onto the open road.

  We are free.


  She pushes the Accord hard, getting us to the interstate ramp fast. Right now, it’s critical that we put as much distance between ourselves and the institute as possible, so she makes the same short-term gambit I would make, accelerating past sixty, seventy, eighty miles per hour.

  “We’re going to get pulled over,” Howard says. He’s hanging on to his seat belt for dear life.

  Tanya doesn’t answer, all her focus on the road.

  We break a hundred miles per hour and keep going, the car shuddering as the metal is stressed by g-forces. I’m most concerned about the rear of the vehicle, where we collided with the Yukon. If there’s any internal damage to the structure, this speed could shake us apart.

  Tanya must be aware of that, but it’s not stopping her.

  At this rate, she’s putting almost two miles between us and the institute every minute. She risks it for twelve minutes by the clock, a burst that puts us nearly twenty-five miles away. Then she quickly gets off the highway, slowing down to the speed limit.

  I watch for chase cars behind us, and I roll down the window and listen for aerial surveillance. I imagine the search grid The Program will create, a map with the institute at the center, concentric circles extending out in ever-widening zones, each of which will be thoroughly investigated. How long before we are caught in one of those zones?

  “We have to get rid of this car,” I say.

  It’s badly banged up after our run-in with Mike, and easily identifiable to anyone who might be looking for us.

  “There’s a truck stop ahead,” she says.

  When we get there, she pulls around back to the employee parking area.

  I know what Tanya is thinking. People tend to stay at truck stops for less than thirty minutes, which means if you steal a car from a truck stop, it’s likely to be reported quickly. But if you steal a car from an employee with an eight-to twelve-hour shift, you buy yourself some time.

  Tanya stops the Accord and gets out.

  “Stay in the car,” I tell Howard. “I have to talk to Tanya alone.”

  Tanya’s waiting for me. We fa
ce off in the parking lot, eyeing each other warily.

  “I’m no danger to you,” she says.

  “Like you were no danger to Silberstein?”

  “He threatened the mission,” she says.

  “What is your mission, Tanya?”

  “What’s going on?” Howard asks as he steps out of the car.

  “I told you to stay put,” I say.

  “To hell with that,” he says.

  He looks back and forth from Tanya to me.

  “Why are you two acting so weird?”

  “Tanya isn’t who she says she is,” I tell Howard.

  “Who is she?” he asks.

  “I work for The Program,” Tanya says.

  “Work for?” he says.

  “I’m an agent.”

  Howard blinks hard, trying to understand.

  “She’s an assassin,” I say.

  Howard’s face tells the story. Surprise, upset, betrayal—all at the same time. The poor guy would make a terrible poker player.

  Howard says, “But we were prisoners in the house—”

  “Tell him the truth,” I say. “You owe him that much.”

  “The Program sent me into the room with you,” Tanya says. “They couldn’t break you during the interrogation, so they assigned me to befriend you and get you to tell me what you knew.”

  “So we’re not really friends?” Howard says.

  Tanya looks upset. It’s not easy to disappoint Howard. He’s so earnest, it’s like kicking a puppy.

  “I was doing a job,” Tanya says. “I didn’t plan on our becoming real friends.”

  Howard smiles wide. “So we are friends. For real.”

  “For real,” she says.

  It looks like Tanya is sincere, but she’s fooled me before. I can’t let it happen again.

  “Are you the Delta agent?” I ask.

  “I’m the Gamma,” Tanya says.

  Francisco told me about the existence of the assassins before I killed him on my last mission. Four agents other than myself. Only three of whom I’ve met.

  I see the org chart in my head:

  Mike Alpha

  Francisco Beta

  Tanya Gamma

  ? Delta

  Me Epsilon

  If Tanya is the Gamma, that would make her a few years older than me.

  I say, “You’re too young to be the Gamma.”

  “I’m fifteen. I started The Program much younger than you.”

  “I understand why you were put in with Howard,” I say. “But what happened after?”

  “I had no idea who you were when you walked in, Zach. Not until you faced off against Mike. Then it became obvious that you were trained like me.”

  “But you came with us after that. Why?”

  “Howard was my mark. You stay with the mark until your orders change.”

  “You said your orders were to find out what Howard knew and whether he was connected to me. Once you knew the truth, you should have terminated us. But you helped us instead. Why?”

  “I don’t know,” she says.

  “Have you spoken to Mother?” I ask.


  “When you called your grandmother on my phone?”

  “That’s right. It was an emergency protocol. I let Mother know that I was safe and with Howard. But no more.”

  “You didn’t tell her about me?” I say.


  And Mike wouldn’t have told her anything, because to do so would raise questions about what he was doing there in the first place.

  “Which brings us back to my first question. Why?”

  “Maybe I’m confused,” she says.

  I look at Tanya, deciding my next move.

  I still have Silberstein’s gun in my waistband. I could take Tanya out into the field beyond the parking lot, away from the restaurant where people might hear a gunshot. I could make it look like an assault gone awry. An underage runaway hanging out at a truck stop meets the wrong person. Tragedy ensues.

  “You’re planning to get rid of me,” Tanya says.

  “How do you know?” I ask.

  “That’s what I would be doing right now.”

  “Stop it, both of you,” Howard says. “I got the info about your father, Zach. Can’t we just leave her here?”

  I glance over at him and see that he’s holding out the thumb drive. Howard’s uncomfortable, and I don’t blame him. He’s not trained to deal with situations like this.

  But I am.

  “We can’t let her go,” I say quietly. “She’s seen us. Which means we’re not safe.”

  Howard stares at the ground, afraid to meet my eye.

  Tanya takes a step toward me. I reach for the gun in my waistband.

  “You don’t need the gun,” she says.

  “I’ll decide that for myself,” I say.

  She shrugs. “You’re going to do what you’re going to do, Zach. But before you kill me, I have to tell you something.”

  I nod, fully expecting her to plead for her life.

  “It’s about your father,” she says. “He’s alive.”


  For a moment I feel unsteady on my feet.

  “I don’t believe you,” I say. “You’ll tell me anything right now to save yourself.”

  “I don’t want to die,” she says. “But I’m not going to lie to you. I’ll tell you what you need to know, and then you can decide what you want to do with me.”

  “Talk,” I say. “I’ll listen.”

  “Your father is alive and working for The Program. That’s why Howard found those e-mails. You remember how Silberstein said The Program wanted to take over their research?”

  “He said my father refused. That’s why they killed him.”

  “That’s what he believed, but it’s a lie. The Program didn’t just take their research, they took your father to run it, too.”

  “Why lie to Silberstein?”

  “He was deemed a security risk, so they kept him on the science side of things and walled him off from the military applications.”

  “And his story?”

  “Everyone has a different story about your father. You know how The Program works. It’s a Chinese box, stories nested in stories behind other stories. Nobody gets the full truth. Mother makes sure of it.”

  “You’re saying that you know the full truth?”

  “I know enough of it to help you. There may be more that I don’t know.”

  “But you can tell me for sure that my father is alive? Why would I believe you?”

  “The accident they staged on the bridge. Your father’s body was not in that car.”

  “You have proof?” I ask.

  “I don’t need proof. I was there.”

  Howard gasps, but I’m not buying her story.

  “It was nearly five years ago,” I say. “You couldn’t have been there.”

  “Pull up the article from the newspaper,” Tanya says. “The one we were looking at earlier.”

  I take my phone and toss it to Howard. He finds the article and tosses the phone back.

  “Check out the second picture,” she says. “The one taken at the scene of the accident.”

  I scroll down. A group of townspeople stands on the bridge, staring at the place where the car went off the road. There are children there, one in particular who is pointing toward the break in the railing.

  “Look at the girl who’s pointing,” Tanya says.

  There’s a photo of a young girl, maybe ten years old, wearing a cap. I pinch out and magnify the image on the screen. I look at the girl’s eyes, the shape of her nose in relation to her brow—

  I compare that face with Tanya’s.

  “The little girl is you,” I say to her.

  I toss the phone back to Howard.

  He looks at the picture on the phone, then at Tanya, then back to the phone.

  “Oh my God,” he says.

  “I was ten years old,” Tanya says. “My
first year in The Program and one of my earliest assignments. I was planted in town as the daughter of a couple on vacation for the summer. I was told to ride my bike out by the bridge at a certain time so I could witness the accident and call the police. I was there when they arrived, while they investigated, and when the reporters got to the scene. What’s more credible than an innocent child pointing for the camera?”

  It sounds exactly like a Program operation.

  “There were bodies in the car, Zach, but they weren’t your parents. Silberstein didn’t know that. They wanted him to think it was an accident, because that would neutralize his doubts and shore up the story for anyone who worked with your father.”

  “So my father wasn’t in the car?” I ask.

  She shakes her head. “I met him later that week. Mother introduced me.”

  I’m trying to process what I’m hearing, but it’s more difficult than I expected. Normally I can take in information and sort it instantly, but when it comes to my own family, my thinking is cloudy.

  “My father would never work for The Program,” I say.

  “He would if he had no choice,” Tanya says.

  “What do you mean?”

  “Isn’t it obvious?” she says. “He had to work for them because they took his son.”

  Howard and I exchange looks.

  “You’re their bargaining chip,” Tanya says. “Your father can’t rebel as long as he knows your life is on the line. At least that’s how it was explained to me.”

  I think of my father that last time I saw him, tied up and bleeding in the chair in our living room. Mike drugged me and took me into the room before I passed out.

  It all makes sense now.

  Mike took me in, not so I could see my father, but so my father could see me.

  I’m thinking about that time now, lost in the memory, when a buzzing sound pulls me back to the present.

  Howard is saying my name. He’s holding out my phone.

  “Someone is calling,” he says.

  I look at the phone.

  “It’s Mother,” I say.

  “I told you the truth earlier,” Tanya says. “She doesn’t know we’re together, but by now, she has to suspect you. Play along. Convince her everything is fine, and you’ll get closer to your father.”

  I look at Tanya, then down at my phone where Mother’s ID code is flashing on the screen.

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